JOHANNESBURG -- As a close friend and former fellow inmate of Nelson Mandela, Mac Maharaj has long played a pivotal role in bringing Mr. Mandela's story to the world.
In the 1970s, when both men were held at the notorious Robben Island prison under South Africa's apartheid government, Mr. Maharaj smuggled out a text that formed the basis for Mr. Mandela's celebrated autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom."
Today, as spokesman for the South African presidency, Mr. Maharaj is again the conduit for the Mandela tale -- possibly its final chapter. On Thursday morning, Mr. Mandela's eldest daughter described his condition as "very critical" and warned that "anything is imminent." Shortly after that, President Jacob Zuma also visited Mr. Mandela – his second visit in 24 hours.
In some ways, thus, Mr. Maharaj's task is as fraught as ever.
At a news briefing on Monday, Mr. Maharaj upbraided journalists for their coverage of Mr. Mandela, 94, who remains hospitalized with a serious lung infection. Unethical reporters were contacting doctors, violating patient confidentiality and, in some cases, getting the story flat-out wrong, he said testily.
On Wednesday night, Mr. Maharaj again went on the defensive, in reaction to a report on CNN that Mr. Mandela was on life support. "I'm not going into any detail by confirming or denying," he said, citing constraints of doctor-patient confidentiality. "And I'm not going to get into an argument with an unnamed source."
That criticism was echoed by Mr. Mandela's eldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, on Thursday, who angrily lashed out at the foreign media as "vultures" in an interview with the state broadcaster. "There's sort of a racist element with many of the foreign media where they just cross boundaries," she said.
Mr. Maharaj's denial underscored a central problem in reporting the latest news about Mr. Mandela, a beloved symbol of freedom across the world, as his condition has steadily deteriorated: how to reconcile the voracious, concern-driven appetite for news of his health with the deep sensitivities of South Africans for whom he is much more than a simple leader.
"There's a complicated set of issues at play here," said Nic Dawes, editor of The Mail and Guardian newspaper, which carried a report on disagreements within the Mandela family about where Mr. Mandela should be buried. "One is a deep ambivalence, undergirded by cultural considerations, about discussing the possibility of death. The other is an avid thirst for information."
Worries about Mr. Mandela deepened late Wednesday night after President Jacob Zuma canceled a trip to neighboring Mozambique scheduled for Thursday.
Mr. Mandela's declining health has attracted a huge international news media contingent to South Africa, probably the largest since the early 1990s, when Mr. Mandela was freed from prison, then elected the country's first black president. A phalanx of satellite dishes, tents and vehicles crowds the narrow street outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, where he is being treated.
Camera operators, photographers and reporters cluster outside the hospital gate, scrutinizing every visitor. Behind them, on the far side of the road, stands a line of low-rent apartment buildings that were once restricted by law to minority whites but which are now largely inhabited by working-class black South Africans.
Photographers with The Associated Press have rented a balcony in one of those apartments, overlooking the hospital entrance, at a handsome rate. Other entrepreneurial residents have also taken advantage of the news media circus, selling access to their toilets or setting up roadside food stalls.
Jane Marutle, 30, a city worker, sells hot lunches to hungry reporters, some of whom she now counts as friends. "I've even introduced them to Mopane worms," she said, referring to a traditional meal from Limpopo Province.
But some South Africans have been less welcoming. Last week, in what might be described as drive-by shoutings, motorists slowed as they passed the reporters, yelling epithets or telling the foreigners to go home.
"They said: 'Why are you here? He's not dead,' " said Jody Jacobs of TVC News, a local television channel.
On June 10, a hospital security guard assaulted a photographer as Mr. Mandela's former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, entered the hospital, breaking his camera.
Other South Africans have vented their anger on Twitter, sometimes portraying reporters as vultures; as a result, large news media organizations, like the BBC and CNN, have been guarded about disclosing how many employees they have flown into the country to cover Mr. Mandela.
"A lot of South Africans don't like the spectacle around the coverage," said Mr. Dawes, the editor. "They don't like the crowds around houses or hospitals; they see it as ghoulish and invasive."
For all that, other South Africans have welcomed -- or at least quietly accepted -- the intense coverage as a fitting tribute to their hero. And in recent days, as Mr. Mandela's illness has deepened, hostility toward the news media has diminished, as the population prepares for the possibility that Mr. Mandela may not be around for long.
"The media are here to support us," said Gerald Moshe, 19, a student. "They have come from overseas to cry with us and support us in this difficult moment."
Away from the psychological aspect of Mr. Mandela's illness, however, controversy lingers at the political level, much of it centered on the role of the presidency.
Mr. Maharaj, who is the sole source of official information about Mr. Mandela's health, says he can only give broad descriptions of the former president's condition. But critics say his credibility is strained by the legacy of years of ill-tempered confrontations between the government and the local news media.
Mr. Zuma's government has faced regular accusations of obfuscating the truth over the many political and financial scandals that have roiled the ruling African National Congress party.
And for all the talk about privacy and respect, some of those seeking to protect Mr. Mandela from the news media have also taken advantage of publicity. Two of Mr. Mandela's granddaughters recently starred in "Being Mandela," a reality television show. And some politicians have also sought to bask in Mr. Mandela's political glow, even during his sickness.
The tensions between the news media and the government came to a head last weekend after CBS News broadcast a report that detailed how Mr. Mandela's ambulance had broken down as he was being rushed to the hospital on June 8, leaving him stranded by the roadside until a replacement arrived. The report also asserted that Mr. Mandela had suffered a cardiac arrest that same night.
That report embarrassed the government and visibly angered Mr. Maharaj, who confirmed the breakdown but denied that Mr. Mandela had had a heart attack. He criticized what he described as gratuitous detail about Mr. Mandela's liver and kidney functions in the report, and said it appeared aimed at discrediting the country's leadership.
"It stimulates the view 'Don't trust the presidency,' " he said.
Later, Zizi Kodwa, a former presidential spokesman, said on Twitter that the news report "justifies a need for media regulation." But among the people, there was a sense that the government was shielding them from the truth.
Outside the hospital on Tuesday, Siya Cele, 24, a sales consultant, said the ambulance tale had damaged his trust in the official version. "I want to see what's going on with my own eyes," he said, motioning toward the hospital.
Behind the grumbling, however, many journalists and other South Africans concede that they believe that, in this instance at least, Mr. Maharaj and his colleagues are motivated largely by genuine concern for their old comrade. And as his health crumbles, the squabbles may soon be overtaken by greater concerns.
In recent days, ever-larger crowds have gathered outside the hospital gates. "Prepare for the Worst" read a headline in The Herald newspaper this week.
For many South Africans, facing up to that painful realization is becoming their main focus. As Mr. Maharaj said this week, "I keep pinching myself: 'You lucky sod, he is still alive.' "
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.